THURSDAY 1 FEBRUARY 2001
  
                               _________
  
                           Members present:
              Mr Barry Sheerman, in the Chair
              Charlotte Atkins
              Mr Evan Harris
              Helen Jones
              Mr Gordon Marsden
              Mr Nick St Aubyn
  
                               _________
  
  (In the absence of the Chairman, Charlotte Atkins was called to the Chair)
                              ----------
  
                 THE RT HON BARONESS BLACKSTONE, a Member of the House of Lords, Minister
           for Higher Education, DfEE, and MR NICK SANDERS, Director, Higher
           Education Group, DfEE, examined.
  
                           Charlotte Atkins
        1.    I would like to welcome Baroness Blackstone and Nick Sanders. 
  I apologise at the outset for the late appearance of our Chair who is stuck
  on a train, a common experience for many people, I am sure.  He will join us
  as soon as he can.  In the meantime, would you like to make an opening
  statement?
        (Lady Blackstone)          Not really.  I think I did when I last met the
  Committee.  I do not have anything in particular to say now and I am happy to
  go straight into questions.
        2.    As you know, we are focusing at the moment on student retention
  in higher education and we have been looking at the issues of access to higher
  education.  We are just completing our report on that issue, so we are really
  addressing both those issues but particularly focusing on retention today. 
  In relation to that, could I ask you whether you accept that, with an increase
  in non-traditional students, this will lead to an increase in non-completion
  rates?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I do not see why it should.  First of all, in trying
  to widen participation, which is an objective of the government, and to reach
  out to more non-traditional students, there should in no way be a lowering of
  standards.  Out there, there are a huge number of potential students who in
  the past have not had access to higher education for a whole variety of
  reasons, but these are students who have the ability to not only do well on
  a course but to enjoy the course and to complete it.
        3.    Do you think that non-traditional students may have access to
  less advice in terms of parental support perhaps or access to other forms of
  advice to ensure that they make the right decision in terms of institution and
  course because from the DfEE evidence it is clear that those factors -- the
  choice of institution and the choice of course -- are important aspects of
  non-completion.
        (Lady Blackstone)          Absolutely.  That is completely right.  You have
  absolutely put your finger on it.  If a student decides to go to university
  but does not really think about what they want to study, where they want to
  study, what is the right place for them, what is the right subject for them,
  there is a bigger danger that they will find themselves in the wrong place,
  on the wrong course and becoming unhappy and then leave.  Some of them may
  come back again later, but they will still be a statistic of non-completion
  and deemed to have dropped out and in that sense been a failure.  I think good
  advice and good information before they go to university is absolutely
  essential.  I also think it is very important that there is good advice and
  good information when they arrive because sometimes a student who has not made
  the right decision and realises it very early on does not get enough support
  and then they leave when they could have been given the help to think again
  about what they really want to do and transfer to another course.
        4.    Do you believe that non-traditional students should be given much
  earlier help?  For instance, as early as year eight when they are just 12 or
  13, so that they can consider much more fully what they can expect at
  university, perhaps visit universities and have much more time to consider
  financial aspects?  The reason I mention year eight is because, before they
  take their GCSE options, it is in my experience pretty much a gap year and can
  be a year when many students or pupils feel a little bored and at a bit of a
  loose end.  Do you believe universities should be looking much more at
  utilising that year, particularly for non-traditional students who perhaps
  have not even considered university at that stage?
        (Lady Blackstone)          Teachers and the career service, to become
  connections, have the primary responsibility for pupils at that age.  There
  ought to be sensible discussions with them about what they are thinking about
  from the point of view of careers, what they are thinking about in terms of
  further study when they leave school, if only to shape their GCSE decisions
  and options.  We should start to get youngsters thinking about higher
  education at that age and keep on discussing it with them throughout their
  secondary education.  We also want universities to be reaching out very much
  more, working with schools, coming into schools, talking to young people about
  what they have on offer, what studying means.  This is also an area where
  mentoring, involving students from universities at undergraduate level coming
  into schools.  This would be extremely helpful.  We are piloting schemes of
  that sort to see how useful they are.  Sometimes 13, 14, 15 or even 16 year
  olds are willing to listen to young people who are a little older than
  themselves and they may not be quite so willing to take advice from people who
  they see as figures of authority.
        5.    That is certainly my experience.
        (Lady Blackstone)          And mine.
  
                              Mr St Aubyn
        6.    According to the latest figures I have seen from UCAS, the number
  of students coming from non-traditional backgrounds have not grown at all
  since the government came to power.  Do you accept that?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I think they have remained about the same but it is
  very recently that we have started new programmes to try to raise the numbers
  of these young people.  It is a little early to judge what the outcome is
  likely to be.  I should be very disappointed if the sort of things that we are
  developing in the Excellence Challenge programme, including summer schools for
  young people when they reach the end of their GCSE year or sometimes in the
  first year of their sixth form studies plus the other things I have just been
  talking about  -- I must say, I do think they have huge potential to help to
  raise the aspirations of young people who come from non-traditional
  backgrounds from the university point of view.  The more general improvements
  in the school system -- raising standards, starting in the primary schools
  with literacy and numeracy and going through secondary education -- as you
  know, there is going to be a great deal of emphasis on the 11-14 age group to
  raise standards there and have a consistent approach right through the
  transition from primary to secondary.  That too should lead to an improvement
  in the numbers coming forward.
        7.    Nevertheless, I think Lord Deering found that the numbers from
  the poorest homes going into higher education had doubled in the previous
  decade without all these programmes and yet, in the last three years, there
  has been a standstill.  Do you think the reason why perhaps non-completion
  rates have not gone up in the last three years is because the less well off
  students are simply self-selecting before they even go to university and
  deciding they are not going to be able to make it through, however wrong that
  decision might be?
        (Lady Blackstone)          There has always been an element of self-selection as
  far as university entry is concerned going back 30, 40 or 50 years.  One of
  the things we have to tackle is raising the aspirations of any young person
  who potentially could go.  That has not been done anything like enough in the
  past.  The big expansion that took place in the 1990s did lead to some
  increase in the numbers of young people coming forward from non-traditional
  backgrounds and that is very good.  At the moment, we have not been going in
  for a very big expansion.  We have a smaller, very carefully constructed
  expansion, again to make sure that we maintain quality and standards.  Our
  policies have to be given time to work their way through.
        8.    The Prime Minister's aspiration of expansion up to 50 per cent
  is no longer on the agenda?  That seemed to be a very big expansion plan when
  I heard it at the time.
        (Lady Blackstone)          You will remember that it is 50 per cent by the time
  a young person reaches the age of 30.  We are not talking about 50 per cent
  of school leavers.  We have got to about 35 per cent as far as school leavers
  are concerned, but if we look at the figure for the numbers who have gone into
  higher education by the time they are 30 it is now at about 44 per cent.  We
  think that is a sensible, reasonable aspiration to get to 50 per cent over the
  next five to seven years.
        9.    Can I turn now to the Secretary of State's letter of 29 November
  on higher education funding, which presumably you had something of a hand in?
        (Lady Blackstone)          Yes.
        10.      In paragraph 11 of that, he says, "The evidence shows there are
  unacceptable variations in the rate of drop-out which appear to be linked more
  to the culture and workings of the institution than to the background or
  nature of the students recruited."  What is the evidence you think he was
  referring to there?
        (Lady Blackstone)          There is evidence from HEFCE which has looked in some
  depth at student drop-out, but there are some institutions which seem to have
  broadly similar intakes but have a much higher level of success in terms of
  retaining students right through a course than some other rather similar
  institutions.  It is really based on those findings that the Secretary of
  State thought it was important to see whether we could reduce the amount of
  drop-out in those institutions with a slightly less good record.
        11.      We had the director of policy of HEFCE and the senior data
  analyst come and give evidence to us yesterday evening and they told us that
  in their view these benchmarks and measures were, in their words, a rough and
  ready measure.  Do you think it is a good idea, based on rough and ready
  evidence, to make an assertion about the rates of drop-out being unacceptable
  variations?  We all want to see the drop-out rate reduced.  Do you think it
  is a bit harsh on the institutions concerned to accuse them of unacceptable
  variations, based purely on rough and ready measures?
        (Lady Blackstone)          We have to go on the evidence that we have.  Measures
  of this sort are quite difficult to construct and make absolutely perfect from
  the point of view both of reliability and validity.  The government felt it
  had enough evidence to ask the Funding Council to have a look at ways in which
  we could narrow the disparity that does seem to exist between the best
  performing institutions and the least well performing institutions.  I think
  that is a very reasonable thing for the government to do in order that we can
  reduce the amount of drop-out.  Whilst the United Kingdom has a pretty good
  record in this respect -- I think we have the second highest level of
  retention across the OECD countries at 83 per cent -- for the 17 per cent who
  do not get through that may represent very considerable personal failure and
  it is something that we should try to work on and make sure it does not
  increase and, if possible, we can try to reduce it a bit.
        12.      I agree we want to try and reduce the drop-out rate, but when the
  Secretary of State talked about bring pressure to bear on those institutions
  whose performance falls significantly below their benchmark, bearing in mind
  the comments of the statisticians involved that the benchmark was a rough and
  ready measure, can you clarify what sort of pressure that is?  Is it moral
  pressure or financial pressure?  What sort of pressure does the Secretary of
  State have in mind there?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I think it is pressure to have a look at every aspect
  of their programme, their pastoral care, the advice and guidance they give
  that I was talking about earlier.  It is pressure to make sure that their
  teaching is of the highest possible quality.  Poor teaching does not help as
  far as student drop-out is concerned.  Also, careful and sensible selection. 
  Selecting students for a course for which they really are not suited would
  also be a failure on the part of an institution.
        13.      Lastly, we have had some estimates of the cost of non-completion
  which in 1997 was put by HEFCE at 90 million a year and it was more recently
  estimated by Professor Mantz Yorke as being in the region of 200 million a
  year.  Do you have a departmental estimate of what the cost is of the non-
  completion rate?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I would want to rely on HEFCE figures in a situation
  of this kind.  They will be the most authoritative and reliable figures that
  we can have.
        14.      You do not think the figure has climbed from 90 million to 200
  million in the last year?
        (Lady Blackstone)          No.  I would be amazed if it had because the drop-out
  rate has not grown by that amount.  It has not grown at all.  In fact, if
  anything, it has come down a tiny bit over the last couple of years.
                  (Mr Barry Sheerman took the Chair)
        Chairman:   Can I apologise and thank Charlotte Atkins for holding the
  Chair.  No discourtesy was intended.  I left Edinburgh at seven o'clock this
  morning hoping to be here but the fog at Heathrow had other intentions for me.
  
                              Helen Jones
        15.      You mentioned the importance of good pastoral care and we are
  particularly interested in support provided for part time students and mature
  students.  I am particularly thinking of students who have family
  responsibilities.  Do you think, from your experience, that universities are
  doing enough to recognise the increase of such students, both in terms of
  having to fit in work commitments if they are part time, but also in terms of
  fitting in their family commitments?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I have some personal experience of this from ten years
  at Birkbeck.  I think it is extremely important, as far as part time students
  are concerned that universities are especially supportive about both work and
  family commitments.  Part time students take longer to graduate and that is
  as it should be.  There should also be some flexibility about that as well as
  teaching which fits in from a timetable point of view with their needs and
  requirements.  Both part time and full time mature students -- nearly all part
  time students are mature -- have the advantage of experience and maturity in
  every sense of that word, which often makes them the most motivated students
  that you can come across, because their determination to succeed is often
  quite moving.  At the same time, they can sometimes arrive at university with
  a strange lack of confidence, not about themselves so much, but about doing
  academic work after a long gap.  I think it is really important that
  universities help students initially, when they are starting out on something
  which is new in the sense that they may have left school at 16 or 18, ten or
  twelve years ago.  That kind of attention to detail is vital.
        16.      I could not agree with you more.   My experience when I went back
  to university for the second time -- and that is increasingly the case now --
  is that there was a real problem in getting universities to recognise family
  responsibilities, particularly the needs of those who have young children. 
  They would change classes without notification or cancel classes and
  reschedule them at a time later in the evenings so that people could not pick
  up their children.  Do you think enough is being done to alert our higher
  education institutions to the fact that while that may have been feasible and
  acceptable when had lots of 18 year old, full time students, it is no longer
  appropriate for the type of student body we have now?  In other words, are our
  academics being given enough training in the needs of the student body that
  they are serving?
        (Lady Blackstone)          In those institutions that have very high proportions
  of part time students, they are more likely to be sensitive and alert to that
  sort of problem.  In some institutions where the numbers are much smaller, it
  may well be that they should be thinking a bit harder about this kind of
  issue.  I do not know about training for individual academics.  I think there
  should be a whole culture right across an institution of the importance of
  taking this into account.  Sometimes things do get cancelled and rescheduled
  because somebody is ill and there is nobody else to do it at the original
  time.  I would not want to say that you could never, ever avoid that
  situation, but if you are alert to it, if you are sensitive to it, you can and
  you should.  It is up to individuals at universities to get this right.  I do
  not think it is for the government to be constantly putting out detailed
  guidance of that sort.
  
                            Charlotte Atkins
        17.      I had a young student with a baby -- with increasing numbers of
  teenage pregnancies at schools, this will happen -- who wanted to go on to
  higher education but she could find no university that would be able to
  guarantee her a child care place and, without the child care place, she could
  not accept the university place.  I was rather surprised and disappointed that
  universities have not got themselves up to date in that respect.  Luckily, she
  found a university place and had the support of her school to carry on with
  her studies, but she should not have had the situation where no university
  would guarantee her a child care place before she accepted the academic place.
        (Lady Blackstone)          I am surprised because most universities now have
  pretty good child care facilities.  That was not true ten or fifteen years ago
  but there has been an enormous improvement and development.  The government
  has encouraged universities to provide for decent child care.  Some students
  do not want to use a university nursery; they want to use one closer to their
  home.  We have improved hugely since we came into government the range and
  availability of child care provision generally, but universities have to try
  very hard to reach out to that sort of student, because it can make a huge
  difference to their entire lives and the extent and length of time that they
  are dependent on the state.
  
                              Helen Jones
        18.      Charlotte almost took the question out of my mouth.  Is not the
  problem in the selection process?  It is a problem that Charlotte highlighted. 
  For students moving on to university, it is not good enough for universities
  to say, "We will offer you a place and, yes, we have a nursery and you can
  apply when you come here", they need to know before they go that that child
  care place is available.  Ought we not to be moving to a situation where
  universities address problems like that during the entrance procedures, rather
  than hoping they might sort if out afterwards?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I am sure that is right.  I suspect that some
  universities who have very heavy demand on their child care places are just
  nervous about making an absolute guarantee.  They are not quite sure exactly
  how many students are going to graduate and move on or whether there will be
  some people who will stay on to do a Masters degree, keep their child care
  place and so on.  I do not in any way disagree with you that more can be done
  to try to really help and encourage the young, single mother to get herself
  the best possible education that she can.
  
                              Mr Marsden
        19.      I am not surprised to hear your strong support for part time and
  mature students because of your own background to which you alluded.  The
  cutting edge which determines whether these things actually happen or not is
  the conversion of aspirations into detailed policy changes.  I want to ask
  about two particular areas where it seemed to us, not least from some of the
  comments we had from witnesses yesterday, that HEFCE had perhaps been a little
  tardy.  I want to take the first point about the institutional barriers that
  there are for full time students dropping down to part time student status. 
  If I may, I will quote what Dr Peters said to us in evidence last week:  "If
  a student were to drop down from full time to half time within the year the
  institution would lose all its public funding in relation to that because the
  Funding Council would deem that they were a non-completer."  Is that accurate? 
  If it is, is it not a disincentive to the flexibility for part time and mature
  students that we are talking about?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I am going to ask Nick Sanders to answer that because,
  quite honestly, this is news to me.
        (Mr Sanders)   It is news to me as well unfortunately, so I cannot give
  you a proper answer.  We can give you an answer in writing afterwards, but it
  is clearly a sensible policy that the needs of individual students should be
  met and the institutional barriers or complications should be addressed,
  rather than historic, institutional arrangements coming first.  That is our
  starting point for thinking about it, if that is helpful.
        Mr Marsden: It would be helpful to the Committee if we could have that
  defined in writing.
  
                               Chairman
        20.      If you look at some of the training programmes in our country
  like New Deal, there are very good premiums for trainees who finish the
  course.  In a sense, if there was a back loading where you would get a
  substantial bonus for completion, especially for first generation students,
  that might be something to address non-completion rates.
        (Mr Sanders)   Funding, by definition, encourages retention already of
  course.
        21.      Is it generous enough?
        (Mr Sanders)   The retention rate is very high.  It is hard to know what
  happens if you make adjustments to the funding of a relatively modest sort.
  
                              Mr Marsden
        22.      Can I move to another aspect which is very relevant to student
  retention, particularly in those groups?  That is the whole issue of
  transferability and portability in terms of course work.  Obviously, I
  understand not least with the development of modular structures in university
  degrees this is more and more important, but it seems from the evidence that
  we have received that this is not something which the Funding Council
  particularly gives benefit to by way of its funding process.  Professor
  Geoffrey Copeland gave evidence to us and Professor Peters said, "We have been
  trying to get regional arrangements to break down the credit transfer barriers
  and Geoffrey has been chairing a group which is trying to bring that together,
  but it does not feel like we have made an awful lot of progress, so for
  example suggestions from various quarters that the Funding Council might move
  to a credit based union of funding have been resisted by the Funding Council." 
  Is that accurate?  If it is accurate, does that not act as a barrier in terms
  of encouraging the sort of transfer in and out which more and more part time
  and mature students need to do?
        (Lady Blackstone)          The whole issue of credit transfer has been on the
  agenda for 25 years.  It is highly desirably but quite tricky in practice. 
  We have autonomous universities.  We do not have a national curriculum for
  higher education; nor should we.  This means that individual academics who are
  responsible for the curriculum for a particular course hang on rightly to
  their academic freedom to teach what they think is appropriate.  Different
  institutions teach slightly different, sometimes very different, programmes
  in a degree that might have a rather similar kind of name.  You immediately
  have something of a problem as far as credit transfers are concerned,
  particularly if you have a linear type examination system with end of course
  exams that require a student to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding
  across the whole course.  That however can often be used as an excuse for not
  being rather more open minded about taking people in, allowing them to catch
  up, giving them a bit of help, when they want for one reason or another to
  transfer out of one institution into another.  On the whole, we should avoid
  the situation where people are moving from one university to another.  We have
  short, three year courses for undergraduates, shorter than virtually every
  other country.  Occasionally, there is a reason why this has to happen and
  then we should really work hard but I do think it is up to the universities
  to work together to come to sensible solutions, sensible, common sense,
  practical approaches to this.  Perhaps there is a case for HEFCE providing
  through their resourcing a bit more in the way of a carrot for that to happen.
        (Mr Sanders)   Clearly, HEFCE has to proceed with the consent of the
  institutions and that is at the heart of this issue and the issue about how
  fast the institutions wish to move in that direction and how far the Funding
  Council can and should give them incentives.  That is what the argument is
  about rather than there being any suggestion from anyone, I am sure, that
  there should be a central dictum.
        23.      I am not trying to unpick the 1992 Act.  I am merely suggesting
  that in this area HEFCE might be a little more proactive.  Can I move to
  broader issues, and this is where the whole issue of teaching quality and
  teaching support comes in, because we have heard evidence consistently
  throughout this inquiry of concerns about the staff:student ratio having an
  impact on the ability of staff to give the sort of pastoral care which you,
  Minister, quite rightly said should be part of the benchmark process. 
  Specifically, we have also heard very significant criticism, not least from
  the vice-chancellor of Surrey University, of the way in which the assessment
  exercise, with the emphasis it puts on particularly younger academics focusing
  on research and the outcomes of that, may distort the balance in universities
  between teaching, between pastoral care and research in the amount of time
  that academics, particularly younger academics, are able to give to the sort
  of support which students need.  Do you have any sympathy with that view?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I think it is up to the leadership of individual
  universities to convey to young academics the importance of teaching, from the
  vice-chancellor down to the deans of faculties and the heads of individual
  academic departments.  They have the responsibility to say to everyone joining
  the profession, "Of course you are interested in research.  You may want to
  make your mark in researching in a particular area, but you have a primary
  responsibility to your students."  There is no reason, in my view, or in my
  limited experience, why you should not be able to undertake first class
  research and take your teaching seriously.  I know sometimes when people are
  starting out getting the balance right may be difficult and they may need a
  bit of help, advice and guidance, but it is for the individual university to
  provide that.  In that sense, I am not particularly sympathetic to whoever it
  was who said this to you.  On the other hand, I know these pressures exist and
  you have to keep watching out for them and making sure people understand what
  their contractual obligations are and just how important teaching is.
        24.      Where is the carrot in the system -- I am talking now about
  funding carrots -- that would encourage a young academic (I am focusing just
  on them because they are perhaps the most under pressure) to say, "Okay, I
  will spend 20 per cent of my time less on my own research, which may or may
  not translate into my teaching, and 20 per cent more in terms of perhaps
  taking up some of the excellence initiatives that the government is doing with
  the Institute of Learning and Teaching and doing outreach work with schools",
  which we have heard about previously and which we all believe is so important
  to not just widening access but retaining students in the system.  At the end
  of the day, we can have all these grand aspirations but in the day to day,
  pressurised atmosphere of a university something has to give.
        (Lady Blackstone)          Virtually all research should translate into better
  teaching.  Even if you are doing research on something quite narrow, it nearly
  always has wider implications and what you learn from your own research,
  particularly as a young academic, is going to be helpful to the quality of the
  content of the teaching that you are providing.
  
                               Chairman
        25.      You and I were at the London School of Economics at the same
  time.  We knew some eminent professors who were brilliant researchers but
  could not teach to save their lives.  We would not want to stop them
  researching, would we?
        (Lady Blackstone)          Of course not.  Even people who are not good teachers
  because their communication skills are bad would almost certainly become
  somewhat better teachers if they were doing really fascinating research and
  they could pass on those results to their students.
        26.      The fact of the matter is we have to address this question of:
  do we in the university system today give adequate bonuses and rewards,
  brownie points, whatever you want to call them, to good teachers?  The
  evidence that we have had still is we do not.
        (Lady Blackstone)          I was about to come to that.  The way in which you
  should encourage people to take their teaching seriously from the funding
  point of view is by promoting people when they can demonstrate that not only
  is their research of a high quality but so is their teaching.  Similarly,
  where somebody is an outstanding teacher -- and we should collect more
  evidence about the quality of people's teaching, including directly from
  students, because they are the people who tend to know usually about that --
  we should be giving additional increments.  We should be definitely
  celebrating high quality teaching at our universities.  I think there is a
  case for doing more of that than has perhaps been done in the past.
  
                              Mr Marsden
        27.      I am encouraged to hear that.  You have talked about the
  relationship between research and teaching and the importance of that
  integration of the process.  Would there not then be a case, as Professor
  Roger Brown and others have argued, for a joint assessment exercise of
  universities and of university departments which involved both teaching and
  research at the same time so that we did not have this apartheid in the system
  in terms of brownie points and perception in the world outside?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I would not rule that out but it is a matter for the
  sector itself to consider whether it would be less intrusive, less
  bureaucratic.  There are complaints about that as far as both the RAE and the
  QAA work on teaching quality is concerned.
        28.      It means you would then have one rather than two inquiries.
        (Lady Blackstone)            Yes, as long as you could do it in such a way that
  it did not impose an impossibly tough burden because you would be doing a
  single big exercise all at once, whereas the work done by the QAA and by the
  RAE is spread.   The RAE is done at one time; the QAA also does it on a
  subject-by-subject basis, so you would have to think through the
  practicalities of that really and not end up with really turning a university
  upside down whilst you were crawling over every aspect of the work, which I
  do not think would be helpful.
  
                               Dr Harris
        29.      Are you in a position to rule out the imposition of top-up fees
  by universities in the next Parliament, assuming you are still in power?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I think you asked me that question when I came to
  the Committee last time.
  
                               Chairman
        30.      He always asks it!
        (Lady Blackstone)            I will give you exactly the same answer as I gave
  you before.   Top-up fees are not part of the government's policy:  we have
  consistently said, both David Blunkett and I, that we are opposed to top-up
  fees for the reasons I gave you before, and we have taken out reserve powers
  to prevent  top-up fees.
  
                               Dr Harris
        31.      But you cannot rule it out?
        (Lady Blackstone)            In the Teaching and Higher Education Act of 1998 no
  university has charged top-up fees; I do not expect any university to do so,
  and our policy has not changed.
        Dr Harris:    I have been asked to ask you this again, because those were
  the same words you used --
        Chairman:   We are supposed to ask our own questions, not somebody
  else's!
  
                               Dr Harris
        32.      My constituents reminded me that, before the last election, that
  was exactly the same phraseology you used about proposals to introduce tuition
  fees and abolish maintenance grants for poorer students, so do so you
  understand the scepticism with which people greet your suggestion that you
  have no plans for top-up fees but you refuse to rule them out in the next
  Parliament?  Surely you could rule them out, just to make me happy?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I will not comment on what was said in our last
  manifesto; it is not true but I do not think it would be helpful to go back
  into that.   All I want to say, yet again, is that neither David Blunkett nor
  I are in favour of top-up fees.   We do not think this is the right approach: 
  it is not  part of our policy.  When we get to the general election, maybe we
  will be able to talk to you again but it is a little way ahead and I will let
  you know whether the government is prepared to rule them out or not in good
  time.
        33.      I think that is helpful.   Are you acquainted with the work of
  Professor Callender?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I am, indeed.
        34.      Right.   This was research done for the DFEE.   She argued --
  and, indeed, their press release, and I raised this yesterday so you may have
  warning of this, suggested -- that student debt has tripled since 1995/6.  
  The DFEE press release covering the release just before Christmas said that
  a spending survey shows a rise in student income.   How do you go from their
  version that student debt has trebled as the main finding to your version of
  a rise in student income as the main finding?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I do not think they are inconsistent at all.   You
  can borrow more money and, therefore, raise your income by borrowing more
  money so there is no inconsistency, but let me just comment on the suggestion
  that student debt has trebled.   Of course, student debt has gone up because,
  if you move from a system where you provided maintenance through  grants as
  well as providing for student loans and then you move towards a system where
  you rely on a loan scheme, you are going to have students borrowing more money
  than they borrowed before.  We have really, however, to look at this, I think,
  in a sensible, rational way, namely that the loan scheme is a fairer one than
  listed before; it is income contingent from the point of view of repayment;
  it has no real interest rate; and 75 per cent of students now take out a loan,
  which is a considerably higher proportion than was true in the past, so of
  course in that sense debt has gone up.   But students are also spending more
  than they were, including spending more on things like entertainment and, if
  they want to borrow additional money over and above the student loan to cover
  the cost entertainment and so on, that is entirely a private matter for them.
        35.      The findings of this report included that 60 per cent of all
  full-time students and 40 per cent of part-timers reported that they thought
  that financial difficulties had negatively affected their academic
  performance, and that 37 per cent of all full-time students and a similar
  proportion of part-time students had not bought all the books they needed
  because they could not afford them and this rose  to 67 per cent among lone
  parents studying full-time, and it is on the record from yesterday that one
  in ten of both full and part-time students have thought about dropping out for
  financial reasons.   Now, that was in 1997-8 before your government removed
  the grant from those poor students who, under a means test, were getting grant
  and replaced it by a loan.   Does this now give you pause for thought about
  whether it was wise to make these hard-up students facing these financial
  pressures more hard up by abolishing their grant?
        (Lady Blackstone)            We are not making them more hard up because the
  amount we are lending them is rather higher than the amount they had in total
  to cover their basic needs, which is what student support is about -- it is
  not about paying for holidays, it is not about expensive entertainment, it is
  about providing an adequate income for a student to survive on without severe
  hardship, and I believe that is the case.   Now, the Chairman mentioned the
  fact that we were at university together and I can say that when I was an
  undergraduate I had a perception that I was hard up.  That has always been the
  case, and that was in a period when there were no loans whatsoever but a grant
  system.   Students are always going to think  that they are hard up because,
  by dint of being a student, they have to make some sacrifice in relation to
  the amount that they have to live on because they are investing in their
  future and their earnings will be very substantially higher as a result of
  becoming graduates.
        36.      I thought the first part of your reply was astonishing: that is
  that, by taking the grant away from poorer students and replacing it with
  debt, you had not made them more hard-up.
        (Lady Blackstone)            No.  I am sorry -- can I just come in -- ?
        37.      Just let me ask the question because I will give you a
  straightforward question to answer: if I were to take the money you have in
  your handbag there away from you myself and loan it back to you at a rate of
  interest, would you feel better off, worse off or no different?  Would you be
  grateful to me or somewhat annoyed?  I think that is the best analogy.
        (Lady Blackstone)            I do not for a moment accept your analogy.   I think
  the point you were asking was whether these perceptions that you quoted about
  being short of money and feeling you were in financial hardship were ones that
  should make us think again about the scheme we have introduced.   My answer 
  to that is that I think students have always had these perceptions and they
  have always felt that they have to manage on a relatively small amount of
  money.   It is true and it has always been true, but the whole point of the
  student support scheme is to provide students with enough to live on during
  the period in which they are students; not to provide an enormous, lavish, sum
  of money that would allow them to live in a lavish way, and the taxpayer would
  not allow us to do that -- nor would any sensible government think that was
  appropriate.   I know of no evidence to suggest that more students have
  dropped out as a result of the changes in the student support system that we
  have introduced.   Now, around just over 17 per cent of students drop out and
  the figures for two years before that were just under 19 per cent so, if
  anything, there has been a small reduction in dropout rates.
        38.      Nick St Aubyn made the point earlier which I concur with that,
  if you have not got an increase in the number of poorer students going in, you
  may have a self-selected sample and there is evidence from the DFEE's own
  research which I would like to quote to you to get your reaction.  One piece
  of evidence is the research paid for by Professor Callender which states, in
  terms,   "61 per cent of full-time students agreed with the statement that
  'Changes to student funding have deterred some of my friends from coming to
  university'.   The proportion of students agreeing with this statement was
  highest among students from social classes IV and V (68 per cent), black
  students (68 per cent) and women aged 25 (68 per cent), the very focus of
  widening participation strategies."  Does that trouble you?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I would be very troubled, I think, if there was
  clear evidence that, as a result of the reforms to the student support system,
  there was a reduction in the number of students coming from low income homes
  but there has not been and we have been monitoring this very carefully indeed
  --
        39.      But there has not been an increase.
        (Lady Blackstone)           --  so I would not be particularly worried about what
  are purely perceptions if the evidence about behaviour is very different. What
  I would also want to do, however, is to try to convey to students just what
  the actual facts are so that their perceptions might be somewhat modified by
  knowing what the evidence is.
        40.      But I think we have some evidence that it is already happening. 
   If you take mature students,  which I think the government has accepted, and
  I would certainly support your efforts to say that we need more mature
  students because within that population are people from poorer backgrounds who
  missed out on the chance to go to higher education, there was some research
  that was published which eventually you put in the library that was presented
  to you on February 4, 1998 by Continental Research which said that a third of
  202 respondents - these are mature students all aged over 25 - said they were
  less likely to go to university as a result of the new arrangements being
  introduced in that summer.   After that, you introduced the cut in grants.  
  Are you surprised, therefore, that this year it has happened frequently - and
  we have commented on this before - that there has been a drop in the number
  of mature students at the age of 25 and over applying to go to university this
  year when everything else you say you want to do, and I support your aims,
  goes towards increasing the number of those mature students applying to higher
  education?  Are you not disappointed and, if not, are you not complacent?
        41.      Of course, I am utterly committed to making it possible for the
  maximum number of qualified people who wanted to study in HE over the age of
  21, which is the normal definition of a mature  student, being able to do so
  but, if I could come back to what happened after we introduced the changes,
  both the introduction of tuition fees and, indeed, changes in the grant loan
  balance, first of all, very few mature students studying full time pay tuition
  fees and 85 per cent or more pay no tuition fees whatsoever. When the scheme
  was initially introduced, however, mature students - or potential mature
  students - were not totally aware of what was happening.  It was more
  difficult to get material to them than it was to young people in FE colleges
  and sixth forms.   There was a reduction in the first two years of the scheme,
  and this was something we were concerned about.   However, when we looked into
  it - and I think I mentioned this to the Committee before - we found that
  quite a lot of that reduction is explained by a demographic decline in the
  numbers of people in their mid-20s which is where the largest group of mature
  students are drawn from; quite steep decline actually.   A second factor which
  is certainly of very considerable significance is the very tight labour market
  and the fact that there are a lot of good, well paid jobs, more than there
  have been before, for people in this age group who have some qualifications
  - which they do.   So those are two very important factors.
        42.      Can I leave you with one example from my own constituency?  This
  is from Harris Manchester College which caters specifically for mature
  students from poor backgrounds.   The Principal there wrote to me on 22
  January: "Over the past 5 years, applications by mature students to the
  university of Oxford have dropped by 23 per cent, and we believe this is
  largely due to the introduction of fees in 1998 and the phasing out and
  subsequent abolition of the maintenance grant in 1999.   Prospective mature
  students often have financial and family commitments, and are unable to commit
  themselves to more loans [or debt] to fund their university study", and the
  drop is from 405 applicants in 1996 to 311 in the year 2000. Are you not
  worried by that in any way?
        (Lady Blackstone)          I would want to check the statistics that this letter
  is quoting before I really commented on them because they are not in line with
  national figures.   I was just about to go on to say in my earlier response
  that the actual proportion of mature students wanting to study full time who
  were admitted to universities at the beginning of this session went up by 1.5
  per cent so there has been an increase in the numbers applying.   We have done
  quite a lot more in terms of additional help for mature  students over the
  last two years especially for those who have dependants, and I think that must
  help in terms of their living costs, but we need to look at mature students
  also in the context of full and part-time numbers.   There has been a
  continuing trend for mature students to prefer to study part time. There is
  I think quite a long-term decline in the number of full-time mature students
  as part-time opportunities increase, and as the economy and the job market has
  been so buoyant.   I think overall, therefore, I am reasonably happy about the
  numbers of mature students that are coming in because you need to look at
  part-time figures as well where, of course, we have been able to hugely help
  part-time students compared with previous governments in that we have made the
  loan system accessible to them and, where they are on benefits or lose their
  jobs as part-time students, we have offered them fee remission.
  
                           Charlotte Atkins
        43.      I think you have been in correspondence with one of my
  constituents who is a working class, very bright student who has gone to
  King's College London, and who has no access to parental support in terms of
  finances.   Do you accept that there is a problem for some students going to
  areas where living costs are very high with trying to  meet all those costs
  within the loan that is available, and would there be a case for extending the
  loan which is available at preferential rates to those types of students?   
  I think he is left with something like 25 a week to live on in London which,
  even with very limited entertainment and eating, would be extremely difficult
  and I feel he would have to go cap-in-hand to banks at relatively high
  interest rates and, therefore, his loan repayments would be that much greater. 
   Have you considered that?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I am very sympathetic to students in that sort of
  position and, as far as London is concerned, there is already a higher loan
  rate which is meant to take into account the higher costs of living in London. 
  That needs to be regularly reviewed; I think it does genuinely reflect what
  the calculations are on the higher costs but perhaps it needs to be looked at
  again.   On the issue of the student who is really finding considerable
  difficulty for those sorts of reasons, that was why we introduced the hardship
  loan so that a student could take out an additional loan if he were in
  financial difficulties and we are now also providing hardship funds for such
  students although we have asked that those should be focused especially on
  mature students, because they are  the ones most likely to have high costs. 
   Lastly, for students who come from backgrounds where there is no tradition
  of going into higher education and whose families are on low incomes, we are
  piloting opportunity bursaries designed particularly to provide start-up funds
  for the student who has to move, who has maybe to buy things like desk lamps
  as well as the normal costs of books, who may have quite high travel costs
  initially.   It is particularly geared to the sort of student you have just
  described.
  
                              Mr Marsden
        44.      I am glad you mentioned the opportunity bursaries and also that
  you mentioned the issue of student loans for part-time students.   The
  majority of mature students are part-time and, as somebody who taught at the
  Open University for 15 years, the majority of my students would have been
  delighted to have had access to those loans.   Going on to the opportunity
  bursaries, which obviously are a new and welcome innovation, how proactive can
  they be at linking in with other aspects of the government's educational
  policy in terms of student retention? Excellence in Cities obviously is a key
  part of that process but at the moment those areas which are included in phase
  3 of Excellence in Cities are not eligible for opportunity bursaries.   I
  understand the  time lags involved in that but what can we do to speed up and
  dovetail the side of the government's education policy which is talking about
  encouraging students to go into university from secondary level and then
  supporting them and, therefore, reducing rates of dropout when they are in it?
        (Lady Blackstone)            Of course, they are a pilot; we want to see how
  effective they are.   As and when we have the relevant evidence, it may well
  be possible to make this a national scheme.   Meanwhile, we want to extend
  them and, in fact, the Secretary of State has announced today that they are
  going to be extended to education action zones.
        45.      That is very welcome.   You would not agree with Michael Bett who
  came before us last week and cited these sorts of things as "sticking
  plaster"?
        (Lady Blackstone)            No.
        46.      You do see these pilots as a key part of the government's
  widening and retention policy?
        (Lady Blackstone)            Absolutely.
  
                              Mr St Aubyn
        47.      The dropout rate for students from less well-off backgrounds who
  achieved at least three 'B's at 'A' level is less than a third of the drop-out
  rate of those from the same background who did not achieve such good 'A' level
  results.   Is this  linked to the fact that they are less confident that when
  they have finished their degree they will reach the earning power that will
  make repaying their debt a problem-free challenge for them?    In other words,
  given you have a threshold at which debt has to start being repaid of 10,000,
  do you recognise this might be a factor which, for those struggling with their
  degree, might mean they decide "Well, I am never going to earn enough or my
  prospects of earning are not sufficient that I should carry on ratchetting up
  this debt. I had better quit while I can pay off what I owe already", but if
  you had a higher threshold they can say, "Well, if I have to earn that much
  before I have to start repaying the debt, then I know I will be better off and
  I will go ahead and finish the course".   In other words, do you recognise
  there is a real issue about thresholds, and is your government prepared to
  look at it?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I would be very surprised if a student making a
  decision not to continue with a course is getting into that kind of detailed
  calculation about when his earnings will reach a point which triggers
  repayments and then decide, "Well, as it is where it is rather than maybe
  2,000 or 3,000 more", or whatever.   I just do not think  that kind of
  calculation is usually done in all my experience of working with students.  
  I think it is much more likely that that kind of student drops out firstly
  because they are having some difficulty on straight academic grounds;
  secondly, that they have chosen the wrong kind of course and it does not
  really suit them; or, thirdly, possibly because they have decided that it was
  a mistake to have gone to university in the first place.   Sometimes students
  are a little uncertain and they make the wrong decision. Again, from past
  experience, quite often that sort of student was not ready for the independent
  living, the self-starting that you have to have in terms of being in a much
  free-er environment from the point of view of study rather than a structured
  one, but they do come back as mature students and they sometimes do very well
  when they have a second crack at it.   It is much more likely to be that range
  of factors than that they are going to have to start repaying a small amount. 
   You have to remember that, when they reach the threshold, the amount they
  have to pay back per month is very small and the fact that it is income
  contingent I think is an encouragement to stay on rather than that you ask a
  student, as happened under the old mortgage-style scheme, to pay back exactly
  the same amount whether  they are earning 150,000 a year or 15-16,000 a
  year.
        48.      I am all in favour of income contingency but the fact is, if they
  are only earning just over 10,000 a year, that debt will hang around for many
  years.  Why do you think you are saying that when the NUS yesterday and
  Professor Callender both told us they thought that raising the threshold at
  which the debt has to be re-paid would have an impact on the drop-out rate
  amongst these groups?
        (Lady Blackstone)            Of course, the government should look at that kind
  of question from time to time and, if we were presented with good evidence
  that that was a factor, I would certainly want to consider whether the
  threshold might be raised a little.   We just raised the threshold for this
  coming year as far as parental income is concerned in relation to tuition
  fees, so nothing like this should be set in stone and we must look at all the
  evidence we have.
  
                               Chairman
        49.      Minister, you will understand very well from the questioning that
  not all members of the Committee agree on everything we have been discussing
  today but there is certainly a theme in terms of student finance that runs
  across the Committee.   First of all, the threshold does look low  to us;
  Cubie talked about a 25,000 threshold and 9 per cent at 10,000 seems to many
  members of this Committee rather low to start paying back that sort of sum. 
  There is a concern across the Committee and I would like you to know that.  
  I would also like you to know that we had some evidence from Sir Howard Newby
  on whether he wanted to go back to the old system of student finance and he
  said that no serious political party would put that forward at the next
  election! Most of us agree, however, to give Evan his due, that a lot of the
  evidence we have had does keep coming back to the fact that they do not want
  to go back to the old system.   In fact, on our visits I have had people
  saying to me that one of the bravest things the Labour government did was to
  decide that 45 per cent of our spending going to student support was
  unsupportable if we were to invest in universities in the future but what does
  come back is this nagging concern of the poorer student.   I know you said you
  are watching very carefully whether this does affect matters, but across the
  Committee there is a concern about the poorer students, the first generation
  students.   I know there are some very good ad hoc schemes and pragmatic
  responses to that, but I hope you would be aware from the Committee that that
  band is a concern to more of us  than just Nick and Evan.
        (Lady Blackstone)            Of course, and I am really looking forward to
  reading your report and will take it extremely seriously.  Where there are
  proposals that you have come up with that are supported by the whole
  Committee, we will look at them.   I think it would be right for me at this
  point to say that poor students are ones we have particular concern about but
  we do need to look at the evidence and we do have to remember that students,
  whether they come from poor or rich backgrounds, are investing in their future
  and, on average, they are going to earn 20 per cent more than a student with
  entry qualifications to university.  It is a very worthwhile investment and
  I hope that the Committee will continue to say that to any young person they
  meet - just as David Blunkett and I do.
  
                               Dr Harris
        50.      I would just mention that the Chairman misquoted me.  There is
  the issue of what happened before the last election or there is the issue of
  what has happened in Scotland, and I certainly would not describe the Labour
  party in Scotland as not a serious political party and I hope you would not
  either.   When we last met we discussed whether there were lessons to be
  learned from the Scottish experience and you said, "First of all, there has
  not been any  change in the overall numbers applying to go to Scottish
  universities...", and you thought there were probably very few lessons to be
  learned.   Looking at the figures, however, from UCAS that have just come out
  this time there has been a 6.3 per cent increase in the number of Scottish
  students applying to Scottish universities based on their baseline which is
  six times greater than the percentage increase in the number of English
  students applying to English universities. Does that not suggest that your
  colleagues in Scotland  - and, indeed, my colleagues in Scotland and the Cubie
  committee - had a point about how the loss of grant and therefore its
  re-introduction can affect decisions about going to university and about
  staying on?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I am not an expert on Scotland because I am not
  responsible for it and I do not want to get too deeply into what a devolved
  administration have decided to do; that is a matter for them.   We think that
  the system we have put in place is a fair one:  we think that it is
  transparent:  we think it is working well:  and we do not see a reason to
  change something that has just been established and pull it all up by its
  roots to put in a somewhat different system.   It was for the Scots to decide
  how they wanted to structure their approach to student  support.   I think I
  am right in saying that the Scottish numbers had come down rather more than
  in England and Wales before; there had been a bit of a fall-off in
  applications to Scotland, so what you have now seen this year is an increase
  following somewhat lower levels of application than was the case across the
  rest of the UK.   There are pluses and minuses to their system, however, and
  it happens to be the case that students from whatever their family background
  in terms of income will all have to pay a deferred fee whereas, in the system
  in the rest of the UK, students who come from low income families get their
  tuition free.   It is a different scheme that they have introduced, therefore,
  and I really do not feel it would be right for me to comment.
  
                               Chairman
        51.      Before we move off Scotland, there is a feeling amongst some
  English members that we have had recently this experience of a more generous
  attitude to certain kinds of student financing in Scotland.  We have had
  reports of a more generous pay settlement for teachers in Scotland - and I do
  not want to get into the care sector which is not our sector - but some of us
  who represent English constituencies are asking increasingly how these finer
  Scots are paying for it?  When one looks at the Barnett formula and this 
  expenditure per head on education in Scotland and Northern Ireland - and even
  Wales - above what we have in England, we are getting a little bit grumpy
  about these generous increases that we are not giving at the same time as we
  give this generous support to Scotland through the Barnett formula.   I hope
  that note could go back a little way to some of your colleagues in the
  government.
        (Lady Blackstone)            I am very happy to pass on what you have said to the
  Chancellor of the Exchequer!
  
                              Mr Marsden
        52.      On casualisation, the issue that we have had presented to us by
  various people including NATFHE and AUT is that there is a concern about
  casualisation.   NATFHE told the Sub-Committee that, in post 1992
  universities, 44 per cent of staff were part-timers and 37 per cent were
  employed on an hourly paid casual basis.   The AUT said they did not believe
  teaching was necessarily of a lower standard when conducted by part-time or
  casual staff but obviously, where there were courses which relied on a large
  number of them, it became more difficult to deal with student queries and
  problems, and that brings us back to the issue of pastoral support and student
  retention.   Is it the case that these flexible  conditions of employment can
  affect non-completion rates?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I would want to be very careful before answering
  that question --
        53.      I thought you might!
        (Lady Blackstone)           --  because I just do not know whether they do.   I
  think poor teaching would affect completion rates but I have never seen any
  evidence that people teaching part-time necessarily are less good teachers
  than those teaching full-time, and I have some personal experience of this. 
   As we ask universities to think much more about preparing young people for
  their future careers rather than simply teaching them an academic discipline,
  and as we ask universities to reach out far more with much better contact with
  employers in both the public and private sectors than used to be the case,
  there is huge value in bringing people in from outside who have practical
  experience in particular professions, particular sectors of the economy, and
  who want to put something back into higher education by doing some part-time
  teaching.
        54.      With respect, Minister, I did not suggest part-timers would be
  worse teachers.   Indeed, again, as someone who was a part-time teacher for 
  nearly fifteen years I would be foolish to do so.   The point I was making was
  that, in universities where the staff:student ratio is particularly high where
  they employ a large number of part-timers and where there is a lot of pressure
  in terms of time for pastoral care, the discontinuity between members of staff
  and students might be a problem.   I accept you are not in a position to
  pronounce definitively on that but would it not be, for example, the sort of
  issue that HEFCE might look at?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I am sorry because I slightly misunderstood your
  question.   Of course, if you get into a situation in an individual department
  where a very high proportion of your staff are part-timers, or possibly even
  more the case if they are paid on a casual hourly basis, then you are in
  danger of not providing adequate pastoral care because a full-time person is
  there all the time and is much more likely to be able to do that.  Anyway, if
  you are paid just to do your teaching and then you go away again, you are not
  really available for those other, wider responsibilities that university
  teachers should have.   I think, however, really it is a matter for the
  universities to organise themselves in such a way that we do not get into
  this.   The government has provided  very substantial additional founding to
  universities; for the first time since 1986 the unit of resource is going up
  next year.   We have put 1.75 billion in as extra funding over this next
  spending period as well as another billion for research and this is a huge
  turnaround, so I do not think universities ought to be in that position.
        55.      Just finally, on that point, the Chairman mentioned our concern
  across the board in this Committee with poor students, but I think there is
  also a concern across this Committee about poor academics. Given that we have
  had concerns expressed to us by a number of witness about the demographic
  timebomb whereby a large number of academics from the 60s and 70s generation
  are going to retire in four or five years' time, are you confident that the
  330 million that the Secretary of State has allocated over the next three
  years to retain and recruit high quality academic staff to this sector will
  be a sufficient sum of money to address some of these issues?   I hope you
  would agree that there is no point us getting the access to universities right
  and the pastoral care of students right if the quality of staff and the range
  of the staff is not there when they get there.
        (Lady Blackstone)            I agree wholeheartedly  with that.   The quality of
  the staff who work in our universities is absolutely at the centre of having
  a successful world-class university system.   I accept, as does the Secretary
  of State, that university teachers' pay has fallen in the last decade relative
  to many other professional groups, and it is for that reason that we have put
  the extra funding in you have just described - 50 million in this coming year
  rising to *170 million in the third year of this spending round.   This will
  make a substantial difference; it is up to the universities to decide what
  they pay their academic staff; the government does not determine this; we
  think we have provided the extra funding - some of it earmarked in that way
  - but within an overall substantial increase in funding which I have just
  described to you.
        56.      And you think it will be enough to address the concern about the
  demographic timebomb that both Howard Newby and Professor Bett brought before
  the Committee?
        (Lady Blackstone)            It is difficult to make absolute predictions about
  demographic timebombs.
        57.      I know it is a dramatic phrase.
        (Lady Blackstone)            I think it is a slight overstatement of the position
  but, again, I think there  are still a lot of very talented young scholars and
  researchers who want to work in our universities. They are great places in
  which to work and they will provide for many people an extremely fulfilling
  career.
  
                               Chairman
        58.      But in some disciplines, Minister, there is very real concern -
  economics, for example, and in some of the sciences and information technology
  - that a very high percentage of post-graduates are not intending to stay with
  the UK. I am not asking you a question; all I am saying is that we are getting
  pretty firm opinions and concerns that, in some subjects, the situation has
  changed in the sense that an undergraduate finishes up with debt and now faces
  three years of post-graduate education where he or she will not be able to pay
  that debt off, and is going to be on a very low income.   Perhaps we are as
  a Committee getting more concerned about those voices which say that the
  quality of the young graduates going into post-graduate and then on into the
  teaching profession in some sectors is very worrying.
        (Lady Blackstone)            I think this is something that has obviously got to
  be monitored and looked at.   In most subjects, most disciplines, there are
  still substantial numbers of very clever, very able young people who want to
  become post-graduate students  and who want to go on into an academic career,
  and I hope that will continue and last.   There have always been some
  disciplines where there are particular shortages - five or ten years ago
  people were talking about shortages of academic lawyers.   I think that has
  been resolved; I do not think there is too much of a shortage there now.   I
  accept what you said about computer science and IT but there are shortages in
  every single sector of the economy.   We have to try to get more young people
  coming into these areas where the demand has really grown so dramatically that
  we cannot meet it here and nor can we in most other OECD countries.
  
                              Mr St Aubyn
        59.      Casualisation is one reason why students may be discouraged;
  another that we have gathered from the QAA is that perhaps they are not
  getting feedback on how well they are doing - in termtime their papers are not
  being marked quickly enough.  Another might be the incidence of protests by
  lecturers in terms of going slow or other marks of dissatisfaction with their
  terms and conditions.   Do you monitor those second two issues and how
  confident are you today that there will not be a more national outbreak of
  protest by lecturers and others who feel that their conditions are simply not
  being recognised,  and the need to improve them has not been recognised?
        (Lady Blackstone)            On the issue of how much feedback students get from
  their teachers, no, the government does not monitor that.   I really do think,
  again, that individual universities should make sure this is adequate.   I
  would really decry any university department that was not providing quick
  marking, regular feedback, criticism where it is needed and praise where it
  is appropriate.
        60.      For the record, then, you would like universities to keep track
  of how their faculties are doing in that respect?
        (Lady Blackstone)            Of course.   I think it is very important,
  concerning what makes for a good academic department, that that is done well. 
   On the issue of industrial action, the government regrets any industrial
  action that is being taken by university staff that will have an adverse
  effect on students, and I very much hope that those who are considering taking
  such action will think again.
        61.      Have you monitored it?  Has it been on the increase or decline
  over the last few years, and do you think it might become more widespread?
        (Lady Blackstone)            I do not think, until the issue this year about
  deciding what next year's pay  should be where there has been a dispute
  between the management side and the unions, there has been industrial action
  taken in the last two or three years.  I am not aware of it.   Yes, of course,
  we shall be keeping a close eye on the extent of this but we have to rely on
  universities letting us know what is taking place.
  
                               Dr Harris
        62.      You made an interesting remark about this whole issue of
  academic's pay.   Last week the Chairman asked Sir Michael Bett, "Do you think
  that is already impacting on retention rates, because we are getting less
  motivated and less well paid people in the teaching profession?", and he
  replied, "It is... a good working tool to think that way.  That is the
  tendency.", and he gave the example of someone leaving with 10,000 or 12,000
  worth of debt, thinking about a PhD who was offered 7,000 pay, and if he
  takes that job he will build up further debt, and if you want to keep him in
  the education system you start him off as a lecturer at somewhere around
  18,000 at the age of 27 or 28, and the problems that causes.   Clearly there
  is an issue of academic pay but you say that this is a matter for
  universities.   Now the main source of universities' funding is the government
  and their main way of increasing the pay is to get an increase in the  funding
  for students, unless you are going to let class sizes and quality drop. 
  Funding for students has dropped - I know there are future promises but the
  record is it has dropped significantly - so surely you have to take some
  responsibility yourself for low levels of academic pay because you are the
  money masters for the universities?  The only reassurance for universities is
  that it is their responsibility if they were allowed to charge top-up fees.
        (Lady Blackstone)            Let me come back to the Bett report.   That, of
  course, was a report not to the government but to the universities, and it is
  for the universities to consider Bett's recommendations.   It is not true that
  funding has dropped very substantially since this government came into power
  - on the contrary.   We have put substantial amounts of funding into
  universities; we accepted the Dearing recommendation initially of efficiency
  savings of 2 per cent a year; and there has been a 36 per cent reduction in
  the unit of resource between 1988 and 1997.  This government has turned that
  round and now, for the first time next year, there is going to be an increase
  in the unit of resource.  That, therefore, plus the additional money that we
  have earmarked for funding people's pay at universities should lead to  a
  much-improved situation over the one that had developed, and which I readily
  accepted had developed, over a ten-year period.
        63.      I agree with that but for this Parliament, which is all we can
  say that has happened because the matters for next year are probably for the
  next Parliament unless the view is that there will not be an election this
  year, can you not see that it is the unit of resource that you provide that
  dictates to universities how well they can pay their staff?
        (Lady Blackstone)            It has been a long-held view - and it was a view
  held by the Dearing committee which was an independent report with substantial
  numbers of people from the sector on it - that when you have a growing system
  you can make some efficiency savings.   We accepted that efficiency savings
  of 2 per cent, during the first three years while we have been in government,
  were possible because we were allowing the system to grow.   We have now
  decided that it is right to reverse what has been required for a very long
  period of time, which is annual efficiency savings, because when they have
  been implemented over a long period you begin to start getting closer to the
  bone and for that reason, for the first time since 1986, we are in fact
  providing additional funding on  a per capita basis as well as the very
  substantial increases that we have provided over the last three years but
  where we have expected some efficiency savings.
  
                               Chairman
        64.      Minister, we realise you have given us a great deal of your time
  and we are grateful for that and for you answering a wide range of questions. 
   Before you go, I have a couple of house announcements.   Our access to higher
  education, the getting in bid, will be out next week and we look forward to
  that.   This is, as you know, the staying-in part and this is the last oral
  evidence session, although we are going as a select committee to Manchester
  next week to look at a range of universities in the Manchester area.   Our
  next scheduled oral session is on 21 March when Mike Tomlinson, the new chief
  inspector, will come before the Committee to discuss his annual report, and
  there will be debate on OFSTED in Westminster Hall on 15 February.   Thank you
  very much for your attendance.
        (Lady Blackstone)            Thank you very much for inviting me and I am really
  looking forward to reading the report next week and, indeed, the subsequent
  one.